Jennifer Jimenez spent this past Christmas in a new apartment off Cambridge Drive.
Jimenez and her five kids have moved frequently over the past several years. Even when she worked full time, Jimenez said, she struggled to pay rent and all the bills while trying to feed and clothe her family. Sometimes her kids had to stay with relatives. Other times they doubled up with neighbors and friends, Jimenez said.
The apartment, which is paid for thanks to a fundraising effort to help house Lexington’s homeless parents and kids, is more than just a roof. It’s stability and a lifeline, she said last week. She can now look for a full-time job so she can find long-term stable housing.
“This is the nicest program that anyone could come up with,” Jimenez said. “For a single mother with five kids, even if it’s for a short period of time, it’s nice to not have to worry about the rent, the utilities and the bills.”
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The Jimenez family is one of seven families who have already been housed through the “Give Kids A Home” community fundraising effort. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 30, the fundraising drive raised more than $51,000 to house homeless parents with kids in Fayette County Schools. To date, 16 children who attend Fayette County schools have been housed under the program, organizers said.
The families are mostly referred to the program through the schools. The program pays the $700 monthly rent for as long as 90 days. Case management and mentors also are provided.
“We will have money to house an additional 17 families,” said Ginny Ramsey, who helped spearhead the Give Kids A Home fundraising effort.
The Give Kids A Home fundraiser began Nov. 1, when more than 35 people — community leaders, social workers and business professionals — spent 24 hours homeless on Lexington streets. The group posted videos and tweets about their experience on the Give Kids A Home Facebook page as a way to draw attention to the issue of homelessness and the fundraiser. The event was organized through the Stein Group, Community Action Council, Babbage Cofounder, and the Catholic Action Center and Community Inn.
The number of homeless kids in Fayette County schools climbed to an all-time high of more than 1,000 in the 2015-16 school year. Kids are considered homeless if they are living in a shelter, in a car on the street, or doubled up with relatives or friends.
There are few options for two-parent homeless families in Lexington. Moms and kids can stay at the Salvation Army. Men can stay at the Hope Center. But single fathers have no place to go with their children. Two-parent families have to split up.
A pilot program run by the Community Action Council and paid for with $200,000 in city money has been overwhelmed with the number of families needing help. The program, which began in February 2016, has a waiting list. The $51,000 raised by the “Give Kids A Home” fundraiser will augment that family emergency housing program. The money is managed by the Community Action Council.
Ramsey, the co-founder of the Catholic Action Center and Community Inn, said the program is now trying to find more two- to three-bedroom apartments to house families. Catholic Action is a day shelter for homeless people. Community Inn is a night shelter.
The Greater Lexington Apartment Association is stepping up to try to help the group find those apartments, said Brenda Wells, executive director of the association.
“We’ve already had one property owner that has donated some furniture,” Wells said. “We are sending out information to all of our members soon.”
They are hoping to get five more apartments for families to move into soon, Ramsey said.
James Hodge, coordinator for homeless education for Fayette County schools, said the school system has been overwhelmed. The school system receives a small federal grant — about $50,000 a year — to address the needs of homeless students. That money does not go far.
“FCPS is extremely grateful for such an overwhelming response,” Hodge said.
Multiple studies show that kids who don’t have a permanent address struggle with attendance and score lower than their peers on standardized tests. Their grades also suffer, Hodge said.
“The funds and the ability to provide housing will in turn contribute to less worry about matters of safety, housing and nourishment for these students and families,” Hodge said. “When basic human needs are met, academics can become the major focus for our students.”
Lexington is not alone in the explosion in the number of homeless kids. An August 2016 article by the Herald-Leader highlighting the growth in homeless students in Fayette County schools prompted the fundraising effort. An August 2015 Herald-Leader series found that Kentucky had one of the highest rates of children classified as homeless in the country.